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Samuel Courtauld, Beyond The Collection

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Samuel Courtauld, Beyond The Collection

Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen (Head of The Courtauld Gallery)

Find more Masters of Impressionism essays here
This essay was originally written for a catalogue which accompanied an exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, in 2019 which featured the collection: The Courtauld Collection: A Vision for Impressionism. 

Samuel Courtauld recalled that from his parents he ‘absorbed lasting principles of fidelity and self-respect’

several covers of written papers

Fig.1. Articles by Samuel Courtauld and a Courtauld-Sargent concert programme. Image: The Courtauld Gallery, London.

The short recollections of Samuel Courtauld’s sister, Sydney Renée, entitled Life at Bocking Place when we were young, suggest a happy and undisturbed childhood for the six children of Sydney Courtauld and Sarah Lucy Sharpe.  The wide-ranging interests, progressive instincts and concern with social causes which later coloured many of their lives speaks to the character of the household and its Unitarian values. Samuel Courtauld recalled that from his parents he ‘absorbed lasting principles of fidelity and self- respect’.[1] The dominant presence in these formative years was his mother and he remembered fondly that ‘to me as a child she represented the summit of bliss’.[2] According to Courtauld, ‘She was infinitely courageous, wise, tolerant, well-read, and had a great appreciation of classic art’.[3] Of his father he wrote: ‘my feelings for him when young were mixed with a good deal of awe, but he was never stern nor tyrannical in any way’.[4] However, ‘his standard of honour and humanity was inflexible’.[5] These parental qualities overlaid the family’s Nonconformist faith. Of this Samuel Courtauld later said, ‘we were taught to believe in Christ as the great teacher but with no clearly defined doctrine’.[6] Unitarianism’s rejection of the doctrines of Original Sin and Predestination in particular, and its preference for a moral rather than literal reading of the Scriptures, seems likely to have informed the belief system which came to underpin Samuel Courtauld’s life, and which is a primary concern of this essay.

Courtauld went to boarding school at the age of ten. After four years, in September 1890, he moved to Rugby School, where he remained until the end of 1894.[7] Courtauld chose not to go to university after leaving Rugby. It must already have been determined that he would enter the family business and an extended period of technical and managerial training was therefore required. Little is known of the three and a half years he spent aboard during his apprenticeship, first in Krefeld, in Germany, and then in France, but one may assume that it was at this time that he established his lifelong love of the country and culture of his Huguenot ancestors. In 1898 he returned home to join Courtaulds Ltd. The aged Queen Victoria was still on the throne; Britain was about to embark on the ill-fated Boer war and its imperial century was nearing its end.

Against this background the young Samuel Courtauld started his career in the modest role of assistant to the manager of the dyeing and finishing factory in his home town of Bocking in Essex. Three years later he was promoted to manager of the silk-weaving mill in nearby Halstead. Uneasy in mixed company, Courtauld considered himself shy and reserved as a young man but he cherished a romantic view of love. Soon after his return to England, his good friend Arthur Kelsey invited him to a dance, and it was here that he met Arthur’s sister, Elizabeth, or ‘Lil’, from who he received ‘an impression of great brilliance and vitality’ (fig. 2).[8] They were married in June 1901, and honeymooned in Scotland, where a journey in a horse-drawn trap across the island of Skye afforded him ‘perhaps the most perfect day of my life’.[9] The following year their daughter was born and given the name of her grandfather, Sydney.

Fig.2. Samuel and Elizabeth Courtauld, 1920s Butler Papers, Trinity College, Cambridge. Image courtesy of The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

Samuel Courtauld prospered in his first managerial role and in 1908 he was appointed general manager of all the company’s textile mills. Courtaulds Ltd had just started its viscose rayon processes and was on the cusp of an immense international boom, which would bring great wealth to the family shareholders. In 1907 Courtauld and his wife bought Stanstead Hall, a sixteenth-century manor house in the family’s Essex heartland, to which they added a large extension in 1913 (fig. 3). A London home was established in Berkeley Street, Mayfair, but Stanstead Hall would be the centre of Samuel Courtauld’s life outside the city, initially with Lil and their daughter Sydney and then also with his four grandchildren and son-in-law. During the First World War, Lil turned Stanstead into an auxiliary military hospital for injured soldiers.[10] Samuel Courtauld’s brothers Jack and Stephen were closely involved in the fighting, and his cousin Elizabeth Courtauld was a surgeon on the front line in France (for which she was awarded the Croix de Guerre). Lil’s brother Clive was severely injured and died of his wounds in July 1915. The family’s experience of the war must have stirred Courtauld’s deep distaste for nationalism and its perceived causes.

Fig.3. Stanstead Hall, Essex n.d. Gladwyn Papers, Churchill College, Cambridge. Image: Churchill Archives Centre, GLAD 5/47

Music: ‘Satisfied with nothing but the best’[11]

Samuel Courtauld’s marriage to Lil was nourished by shared interests and tastes ‘in music, art, books, in sport, and even in people’.[12] Of these, her greatest passion was undoubtedly music. Her first substantial contribution to music in England involved the Royal Opera Company, which faced a struggle for survival in the decade after the First World War. From 1925 to 1927, Lil was the principal sponsor of the Opera, bringing not only financial relief but also a renewed commitment to artistic quality. She established the London Opera Syndicate, which took a sub-lease on the opera house and conceived and financed three summer seasons.[13] Courtauld noted that ‘Lil finds the opera a whole-time job & more’[14] and she was fully engaged in the artistic programming and administration. It is estimated that the Courtaulds’ investment between 1925 and 1927 amounted to more than £50,000.[15] After severing ties with the Opera,[16] Lil became involved with a small theatre company called the Gate Theatre but music remained her primary concern. Her support for music would soon find a new and more ambitious outlet, designed specifically to bring great classical music to a broad and diverse audience.

It is surely no coincidence that as Samuel Courtauld was putting into practice his ideas to advance the public appreciation of art, so Lil was developing plans to promote the wide enjoyment and understanding of the very best of classical music.


In 1926 Samuel and Lil Courtauld acquired the lease on Home House, 20 Portman Square (fig. 4). Designed by the great eighteenth-century architect Robert Adam, this masterpiece of domestic architecture was one of London’s finest town-houses. Adorned with Samuel Courtauld’s growing collection of Impressionist paintings and animated by Lil’s effervescent musical salon, this splendid residence became ‘one of the most cultured and tasteful households, presided over by one of London’s most gracious hostesses’ (fig. 5).[17] The material foundations for this fruitful and public part of their lives were provided by Samuel Courtauld’s rise to the top of Courtaulds Ltd. Having been elected to the Board of Directors in 1915, in 1916 he was appointed joint Managing Director. In 1921 he was elected Chairman of the company, a position he would hold for 25 years.

Fig.4. Home House, 20 Portman Square, in Samuel Courtauld’s time, published in Country Life, October 1932. Image: © Country Life.

In late 1927, the celebrated Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel (1882–1951) gave a private recital at Home House, initiating a warm friendship with the Courtaulds.[18] Schnabel’s experience of the Volksbühne, the workers’ concert societies in Germany, helped direct Lil’s search for a vehicle with which to nurture classical music and its audiences in England. Music, she believed, had been poorly served by commercial promoters offering an inadequate repertoire with mediocre and underprepared performers. Prices were too high for many, which also meant that there was an insufficiently broad and stable audience as a foundation for growth. Lil settled on a subscription model for her new scheme. Businesses, professional organisations, trade unions and societies and clubs were invited to buy, at heavily discounted prices, blocks of tickets for a full season of concerts and to make these available to their employees or members. The rising young conductor Malcolm Sargent was appointed Music Director and the London Symphony Orchestra was engaged.[19] The first performance of the Courtauld-Sargent concerts for the Concert Club took place at the Queen’s Hall on 22 October 1929.[20] The introductory statement printed in the programme was unambiguous: ‘The object of this Club is to stimulate interest in music, and to obtain a wide and stable audience, drawn from lovers of music for whom the usual prices have been too high’.[21]

Fig.5. William Gaunt, ‘In Portman Square’ from the series London Promenade, London, 1930 The Courtauld Gallery archives, London The associated drawing, dated 1928, is entitled The Cocktail Party, Mr Samuel Courtauld’s House.

The first season of six concerts was a striking success and the 2,260-seat Queen’s Hall sold out. The Guardian newspaper celebrated ‘A brilliant beginning’[22] and The Daily Telegraph proclaimed a ‘new chapter in the history of music-making’.[23] Rehearsals – a rare and expensive luxury at the time in London – helped ensure the quality of the performances, and extensive programme notes allowed audiences to inform themselves. The second and third seasons built on this momentum. The list of members of the Concert Club now included major banks, departments stores, large companies, publishers, hospitals, schools and colleges, musical societies, miscellaneous clubs and associations and government offices. In order to accommodate the demand for subscriptions, concerts were repeated on successive nights, and an increased number of individual tickets were made available to the public. Lil declared that she did not want artists to be ‘paralysed by the stupidity of fashionable audiences’.[24] Consequently, she and Sargent selected programmes that mixed such favourites as Mozart and Beethoven with lesser-known and new pieces. Generally, the concerts were orchestral but the programme also allowed for chamber and choral performances, and it always sought to present the very best conductors and soloists, irrespective  of nationality. As Richard Aldous has pointed out, the musical establishment was thrown into disarray by the success of the Concert Club.[25] In 1931 a statement was published denouncing Mrs Courtauld’s perceived favouritism of foreign musicians. Although Lil was stung by these attacks, she was unmoved, responding with words echoed later by her husband in his appreciation of art: ‘[Music] is the purest form of art, and it is supranational’.[26]

The secretariat of the Concert Club was based at 20 Portman Square. Lil was constantly and very closely involved in its management, including much personal correspondence with musicians and composers.[27] Away from London, Samuel Courtauld recalled, ‘the stalking and the fishing are… what Lil loved so much and I think that she was never so happy as in these pursuits, which freed her from every other care (fig. 6).’[28] She enjoyed lawn-tennis and gardening. She and her husband also travelled widely and shared close friendships, ranging from the Swedish-American singer Sara Cahier to the ballerina Lydia Lopokova,[29] wife of the influential economist John Maynard Keynes.[30]

Fig.6. Elizabeth Courtauld (‘Lil’) with a fishing rod and accompanied by a gillie, 1920s Private collection.

In 1929, after a trip to the Canadian Rockies, Elizabeth Courtauld fell ill. She died of cancer on Christmas Day 1931 – her husband was at her bedside. Obituaries lamented ‘one of the greatest blows that music in this country has suffered for many years’.[31] Samuel Courtauld was determined to go on with the Concert Club, ‘as it was Lil’s most cherished work’.[32] He took an active interest in its success, maintaining the Courtauld- Sargent Concerts at very considerable cost until 1940, by which time a total of 132 Concert Club performances had been given.[33] As his wife would have wished, the programme continued to offer a rich and varied repertoire, featuring the world’s finest performers.

Courtauld was left utterly desolate upon his wife’s death. ‘Lil and I were nearly everything to each other,’ he wrote in a moving account of her long illness.


An extended tour of the Levant with his daughter and a business trip to the United States were unable to lift the deep gloom. The visit to North America did, however, allow him to maintain his friendship with the writer and social activist Muriel Draper (1886–1952). The two had met in the mid 1920s. By their own admission, they disagreed about almost everything, especially Draper’s support of Communism. Nevertheless, she made a profound impression on Courtauld and, for the most part, he relished their meetings and correspondence. The 45 letters to Draper which are kept with her papers at Yale University constitute the second largest set of surviving correspondence by Courtauld.

Courtauld’s psychological struggle following Lil’s death is evident in a letter of December 1933 to his close friend Cynthia Jebb (later Lady Gladwyn): ‘I am making some kind of new life for myself: a good many ups & downs & strains & stresses’.[35] It is not until May 1934 that Courtauld was able to declare: ‘I am losing that feeling of recklessness & irresponsibility which I had for so long & life is becoming more solid for me’.[36] These words were written to Christabel McLaren, Lady Aberconway. Alongside his daughter, Sydney, with whom he became ever closer, Lady Aberconway was the central figure in Courtauld’s life after his wife’s death. It was Lady Aberconway who would ‘lift up, sustain and rebuild my spirit’.[37] Four large bound volumes of letters by Samuel Courtauld to Lady Aberconway in the British Library testify to their close friendship. In the absence of diaries and family papers, much of what we know about Courtauld’s interests and concerns and the day-to-day rhythm of his life from 1929 onwards derives from this essential source.[38] The depth of Courtauld’s friendship with Lady Aberconway clearly helped satisfy what he identified as a fundamental human need: ‘This aching desire to be understood – to achieve complete spiritual and intellectual union with another spirit and intellect – seems to be almost universal’.[39]

Synonymous as it was with Lil, it was impossible for Courtauld to go on living in 20 Portman Square. He left in September 1932, having given the property to the Home House Society, which he established as a living memorial to his wife. It was agreed that Home House should function as the temporary home of the newly founded Courtauld Institute of Art, whilst new premises (never fully realised) were built by the University of London in Bloomsbury. Courtauld moved to 12 North Audley Street, ‘much smaller but perhaps equally beautiful’[40] in his assessment, and furnished it with the works of art that he had not already presented to the Home House Society (fig. 7).[41]

Fig.7. Interior, 12 North Audley Street, London, 1962 Conway Library, The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Image: © Country Life

Poetry: ‘Beyond the borders of reason and logic’[42]

Although Lady Aberconway’s memoirs credit Samuel Courtauld with introducing her to Impressionism, there are few references to art in their correspondence.[43] Instead, it is poetry that is here revealed to be a great nourishing force for Courtauld. Not only did he and Lady Aberconway continually share things they read but they compiled and exchanged handwritten anthologies of their favourite poems. Courtauld’s personal selection ranged from a verse of Horace – ‘almost all I can remember of seven years learning Latin and Greek’[44]– and an Elizabethan love song that he recalled being sung as a child to ‘Summer Night’ by Tennyson, which he had enjoyed hearing the poet Edith Sitwell read, and John Milton’s ‘L’Allegro’, which ‘contains some of the most beautiful lines ever written’.[45] Courtauld read French fluently and often but this was a chiefly Anglophone canon. There was great admiration for Shakespeare, of course, an early appetite for Robert Browning, also John Donne, and the more recent discovery of William Blake, Coventry Patmore, W.B. Yeats and Richard Middleton. We also find Courtauld ‘making a serious attempt to grasp some modern poetry – T.S. Eliot, Auden & Spender’.[46] Perhaps surprisingly, the nineteenth-century poet and novelist George Meredith was significantly the greatest poetic influence on Courtauld’s thought. Acknowledging that ‘Meredith has been my teacher in many ways’, he committed great swathes of Meredith’s work to memory and produced a detailed analysis of his sonnet cycle, Modern Love.[47]

It was in this period of his life that Samuel Courtauld also started to write his own poetry.


He eventually produced at least two full compilations – Count your Blessings (1943) and Pictures into Verse (1947). The latter was privately printed and sent as a gift to close friends.[48] In Pictures into Verse he sought to capture the depth and complexity of his response to a selection of his favourite paintings, using poetry as the closest equivalent vehicle. One recognises Courtauld’s appreciation of the technical challenge of language and meter but more importantly his need to give expression to his inner life. Courtauld, it seems, was gradually being led to the conclusion that the reading and writing of poetry, the enjoyment of music, the appreciation of a painting or drawing, or the experience of love were confirmation of the innate human need for what he started to refer to in general terms as ‘the spiritual’. This insight would grow into an absolute and unshakable conviction, fundamental to his personal philosophy and world view.

In the 1930s we find Courtauld fully immersed in the demands of running Courtaulds Ltd. There were more trips around the plants in America and Britain but also time for holiday leisure: a visit to Sweden by car, driving through Holland, Germany and Denmark; visits to see Cynthia Jebb and her family in Italy, where he delighted in speeding his new Bentley on the autostrada and admired the Correggio frescoes in Parma. In Budapest and Prague in 1937 he was disturbed by the talk of frontiers and treaties, declaring that ‘one gets to hate the idiotic worship of nationalism more & more’.[49] In France we find him variously in Paris; in Beg-Meil in Brittany relishing the ‘sense of unworried natural life’; on the Riviera ‘bathing & lazing with a little motoring in the hills’.[50] In Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat he came to acquire a half share of the Hotel de la Voile d’Or, declaring it ‘rather primitive … an odd society but all free & cosy’.[51] Essentially private and introspective by nature, back home in Britain Samuel Courtauld’s life revolved around his family and a relatively small group of friends. He frequently visited the Aberconways at Bodnant, their home in North Wales. He saw Osbert Sitwell at Renishaw Hall and grew closer to Arthur Lee, with whom he had founded the Courtauld Institute of Art and, soon thereafter, had helped rescue the Warburg Institute from its imperilled condition in Hamburg. He started sketching to divert himself and took up hunting, riding to hounds once or twice per week and delighting in high-speed horsemanship. In 1939, largely out of friendship for Arthur and Ruth Lee, who had been anxious about its planned redevelopment, he bought Gatcombe Park, a country estate which neighboured the Lees’ property in Avening, Gloucestershire (fig. 8).

Fig.8. Gatcombe Park, Gloucestershire, c. 1945 Conway Library, London. Image: The Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Free weekends were spent at Stanstead Hall, which Samuel Courtauld now shared happily with his daughter and her family (fig. 9)[52] and which hosted large Courtauld reunions at Christmas. In 1926 Sydney had married R.A. Butler (known as Rab; 1902–1982), who, as Secretary of State for Education, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary, would come to be one of the major figures in British politics. Samuel Courtauld had generously provided his son-in-law with a £5,000 annual allowance for life. Sydney’s and Rab’s four children were a source of immense delight to Courtauld and his regular references to them in his letters to Lady Aberconway help qualify characterisations of Courtauld as excessively serious.[53] Throughout this period he remained a major public figure and in April 1937 the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, offered to propose him for a barony. He declined: ‘it is not for me’, he wrote to Lady Aberconway with typical modesty.[54]

Fig.9. Samuel Courtauld at Stanstead Hall with his granddaughter, Sarah, c. 1947 Private collection. Image: The Courtauld Gallery, London

Courtauld was a close observer of the international situation. By 1936 he was clear ‘that Germany will be the real enemy for a very long period – at least as long as our time’.[55] ‘So the blow has fallen’, he wrote on 1 September 1939 to Lady Aberconway upon the outbreak of the Second World War.[56] In reflective mood, he added, ‘I have had so many good things in life – far more than I have had any right to expect … that if I never see any more human happiness I must still count myself a lucky man & thank God for his blessings’.[57] His letters to Lady Aberconway describe war-time London, including the escalation of the bombing during the Blitz. In September 1940 an unexploded bomb forced him from his home in North Audley Street; he moved into the Courtaulds Ltd head office in the City of London, where he slept in the telephone room on the first floor. Sydney’s house in Smith Square was damaged. Much of Stanstead Hall was used, at Sydney’s direction, to host children evacuated from London, and Gatcombe Park was taken over by Royal Air Force cadets. Anxieties about the war were multiplied when the British Government forced Courtaulds Ltd to sell its profitable US subsidiary, the American Viscose Company, to American interests at a knock-down price as a central part of the Lend-Lease Act.[58]

‘Stand openly in the ranks of the spirit’[59]

Along with his direct experience of the Blitz in London, Courtauld saw the terrible destruction wrought by the wartime bombing of the city of Coventry – one of the company’s main manufacturing centres. Rejecting the competing political ideologies of the day, he resolved that the fight was for the ‘simple things which … we cannot live without – kindness, truth, respect for the pledged word, individual liberty of thought’.[60] And with the country under siege he increasingly came to vest these ideas of essential justice and humanity in a notion of England. In these dark days he continued to find private solace in poetry but at the same time started consciously to prepare for the last great public campaign of his life – the reconstruction after the war. This should principally be understood not in terms of the reconstruction of infrastructure and industry but, more profoundly, the renewal of society itself.

In a long and self-reflective letter written to Lady Aberconway in March 1941, Courtauld stated: ‘I am ready to listen to any modern intellect which impresses me as wise, disinterested, honest, clear & far-sighted and which aims at the transcendental …. Meredith, Julien Benda, and now, perhaps, Charles Morgan, have influenced me, or taught me … more than any other men.’[61] We have already mentioned Courtauld’s attachment to the poet George Meredith. His allegiance to Benda and Morgan offers further insights.

Now largely forgotten, Charles Morgan was in his own time a highly successful novelist.[62] Courtauld, it seems, relished in particular the quasi-mystical and ecstatic elements of Morgan’s work. Not long after it was published in 1936, he wrote, as a private exercise, a detailed analysis of Morgan’s novel Sparkenbroke. The two men were introduced and formed a warm friendship.[63] Courtauld confided to Morgan that he had provided ‘a key which I had, unknowingly, long been in want of’.[64] The great existential questions posed by the trauma of the war created a need in Courtauld not only to sustain himself through literature, poetry and companionship but also to synthesise the ideas that he had been formulating – and which had underpinned much of his endeavours in music and art – into a coherent personal belief system. In a letter to a mutual acquaintance he wrote of Morgan, ‘He has put into words … some of my own most cherished convictions – notably about the integrity of the artist and his ultimate function; the redeeming power of love; and – not least for me – the true relationship between men and women’.[65] For Courtauld, these ostensibly private concerns were of the greatest importance as anchors for a world view in which spiritual life was the primary and deepest frame of reference for humanity, addressing the eternal and immutable and shaping universal values.

Julien Benda, whom Courtauld cites in his letter to Lady Aberconway alongside Meredith and Morgan, was the French author of La Trahison des Clercs. Published in 1927, this influential polemical text, and its sequel, La Fin de l’éternel, argued that intellectuals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century had betrayed the great principles of Western civilisation.[66] Rather than pursue the ideal and the universal, they had occupied themselves with nationhood and class, and had opened the door to racism, nationalism and war. Benda’s ideas find a parallel in Courtauld’s own condemnation of the excessive materialism of society and his belief in shared higher values. Courtauld’s characterisation of art is especially illuminating in this context: ‘I see art as the most uniformly civilising influence which man has ever known; it is universal and eternal; it ties race to race, and epoch to epoch. It overleaps divisions, and unites men in one all-embracing disinterested pursuit.’[67] It should be emphasised that Courtauld did not consider himself to be an intellectual. As a man of business who believed in progress through compromise, he quite deliberately chose to bring his ideas into the practical arena, from which Benda had barred all genuine intellectuals.

Like many of his contemporaries, Courtauld felt that the calamity of the war had posed profound questions of modern life and society.


In April 1942 he wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury in order to lend his weight to the growing calls for national spiritual renewal. Declaring his own Unitarian upbringing, he wished to ensure that this great undertaking would draw not just on the talents and ideas of those who ‘subscribed to the factual interpretations of the Gospels’ but would encompass all spiritually minded people.[68] Likewise, it is clear that for Courtauld the answers to these profound questions were not to be circumscribed by organised religion and its apparatus. In fact, his notion of religion was far broader: ‘“religion” is to me the expression of all those spiritual impulses which are still the most powerful forces among us, and which I hope to see gathered together in one fruitful stream in this supreme crisis in our history’.[69] The great revelation of his experience of art, music, poetry, of his enjoyment of nature, and of his personal relationships, had been to confirm the essential and primary importance of the inner life. The spiritual, as he loosely termed it, was innate in humankind but it had been suppressed and eroded by aspects of industrial capitalism and consumerism. To bring about a spiritual renewal in society demanded new ideas and concrete measures. Courtauld had seen the light and was fired by an urgent sense of duty and purpose. As he said elsewhere, ‘Frankly I fear that when we have won the war we may lose the peace’.[70]

‘Leading the thought of the nation’[71]

In 1941 Samuel Courtauld was asked to comment on industrial reconstruction by a committee appointed by the Conservative Party to prepare for the challenges of the post-war period. His submission to this committee was published in the Economic Journal by his friend the economist John Maynard Keynes.[72]

The article was re-distributed as a separate booklet and generated widespread interest and some controversy. Referring to Courtauld’s proposed reforms, the Sunday Pictorial newspaper ran its coverage under the banner headline, ‘This or Revolution’ (fig. 10). Over the course of many months Courtauld expounded the ideas which he had presented in the Economic Journal in a series of lectures given to professional organisations, societies and clubs around the country, and these too were duly reported in national and local newspapers.[73] ‘This seems to be my mission now,’ he wrote to Lady Aberconway.[74] Together these lectures and writings amount to a manifesto for a just and humane society. Courtauld’s ideas received a stormy reception in some quarters but he was not dissuaded, declaring that ‘all my life I have fought against the closed mind’.[75]

Fig.10. ‘THIS – Or Revolution! Mr Samuel Courtauld warns his fellow industrialists’, Sunday Pictorial (later Sunday Mirror), 10 May 1942

The central questions addressed in the Economic Journal and the lectures that followed included the role of Government in industry, the relationship of employer and employee, and the need for educational reform. Courtauld advocated a strong role for Government in industry, readily acknowledging that Government departments would need to be radically reformed so as to acquire the necessary skills. He argued that ‘industries of many kinds have grown so large and all-embracing today, and … they affect the well-being of the whole community to such an extent, that it is the duty of the Government to control them’.[76] To manage this, Courtauld proposed that all companies above a certain size should have appointed Government representatives on their boards. As if anticipating aspects of our globalised world, Courtauld wrote: ‘no Government can tolerate the existence within its borders of an organized and completely independent power with a radius of action as wide as its own’.[77]

Courtauld also insisted on ‘the admission of the workers to a much greater share in industrial management …. If it can be brought about on sound lines, inspired by human aspirations and practical wisdom alike, it will mean a great gain to the individual, to the nation, and to civilization.’[78] Industry should think of its employees as partners. The assumptions of the Industrial Revolution, which treated workers as commodities or raw material, he condemned as ‘revoltingly inhuman’[79] and as having led to ‘scandalous evils’.[80] This approach was fundamentally in conflict with human nature, and the economic theories which justified it were thoroughly discredited. He recalled that he regularly encountered such views when he started working in the 1890s; remnants still lingered and must now be decisively swept away. Courtauld, it seems, had long been concerned with ‘the disastrous legacy of slums, malnutrition and ill-health’.[81] As early as 1929 he had given £10,000 to the development of recreation grounds in impoverished East London as part of a wider campaign by the recently established National Playing Fields Association.[82]

Concerning employees, Samuel Courtauld’s beliefs were clear: ‘I want the specific interests of the workers to be better represented and better protected; I want them to learn more about the business they are employed in; I want the road thrown open to merit right up to the top’.[83] In order for an employee to be reasonably happy, ‘he must be healthy, and not worn out with too long hours and too monotonous work. He must work in good conditions and be adequately paid; in many cases he must have a bigger share in the profits of industry than he gets at present. He must have security against illness and unemployment. He must get all the education he can usefully absorb. He must have a chance of using his abilities to the full, and ample opportunities of rising as far up the ladder as these abilities entitle him to.’[84] Courtauld sought to reflect many of these recommendations in the conditions and practices of his own company.[85]

Boards of directors, Courtauld argued, should regard themselves as not just accountable to their shareholders but responsible for the lives and well-being of their employees, whose investment was far greater.


To advance their interests, Courtauld advocated that trade unions should be able to nominate directors to company boards. He acknowledged the importance of larger pensions to protect against the ‘haunting fear of illness and old age’ and was scornful of justifications for employing school-age children in dead-end occupations.[86] He proposed shorter working hours to off-set increased mechanisation, supported a statutory minimum wage and a generous family allowance, raised the question of equalising pay within the same industries, and was concerned about the impact of ‘conveyor-belt’ jobs. Workers should also have leisure time to develop their interests outside of employment. And here art and music, and culture more widely, had a crucial role to play. The goal, simply, should be ‘to make it possible for every human being to receive all the culture he was capable of absorbing, and thereby to develop the best that was in him’.[87]

Education was no less critical. Courtauld’s approach was egalitarian and meritocratic: ‘Anyway, what a teaching system should do is to educate everyone in accordance with their capacity, as fully as possible and irrespective of class …. My aim here is exactly what I said in connexion with culture. I neither want to perpetuate, nor to create, any privileged class.’[88] A higher school-leaving age should be considered and employers should support young workers by allowing for part- time education. There should be more and better technical education in state schools but applied on a foundation of a wide general education, including history and the other humanities. (Building the future on engineers he regarded as a barbaric notion.) In creating better and more productive citizens these measures were to be seen as investments in the future of the country and the health of society.[89] In November 1942 the United Kingdom’s Government published the Beveridge Report, which became the foundation of the post-war welfare state. It comes as no surprise to find Samuel Courtauld characterising this as a ‘magnificent document’.[90]

Courtauld formed these ideas over the course of 45 years in industry but they were organised around a single profoundly held conviction. Addressing an audience in London in February 1943, he said: ‘Now may I tell you what I believe to be the main fundamental heresy which has brought modern civilization to the brink of the precipice? It is simply this: the worship of materialism …. Mankind has been dazzled by its material progress during the last one hundred years or so: by the wonderful discoveries of science, their sudden application to modern life, and the rapid growth of wealth and material power.’[91] The expansions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had failed to deliver genuine well-being for the greater population. Worse, they had created an obsession with materialism, which now held society in an ever-tightening grip. To change course and strike down a different path was not going to be easy: ‘Plainly the first thing we all have to acknowledge is that human and spiritual values must take precedence over material and economic values in every walk of life and every layer of society’.[92]

The progressive ideas summarised above should not be construed as an overtly Socialist agenda. Courtauld was a liberal Conservative. He was emphatically in favour of entrepreneurship and individual initiative. He perfectly well understood that the reforms he was suggesting would challenge many vested interests and indeed his lectures excited much controversy. Courtauld described himself as ‘a believer in the middle way: in evolution rather than revolution: in experiment rather than dogma: above all, in compromise’.[93] However, recognising that wealth and power typically always flowed in one direction, he warned: ‘Unless the men in possession are prepared to adapt themselves and compromise, there is no alternative to a complete socialist revolution’.[94]

Samuel Courtauld’s engagements in the last years of his life should be understood in the context of the principles that he had first fully defined in his Economic Journal article. He became involved with the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, chaired by John Maynard Keynes, which distributed government funding for the arts. In 1944 he gave £14,000 for research at Oxford University into problems of industrial efficiency and organisation. In that same year he would surely have celebrated the so-called ‘Butler Education Act’, the profound and radical reform of Britain’s education system, designed by his son-in-law.

In May 1946 newspapers carried notices that Samuel Courtauld was severely ill with double pneumonia. He stood down as Chairman of Courtaulds Ltd in October 1946. Visiting him in late February 1947, Cynthia Jebb found him on typical form: ‘We talked about Communism, rather guardedly in front of William the footman; and Christ, and women, and all sorts of deep subjects about which Sam argued with Courtauld vehemence. He is amazingly vigorous and wise. Quite the nicest person in the world, who brings out the best in everybody.’[95]

A musical evening in North Audley Street elicited a prescient note of thanks from Charles Morgan: ‘Monet, Manet and Mozart are an incredible enchantment. Such things will never come together again in a beautiful private house.’[96] Samuel Courtauld died at home on 1 December 1947, aged 71 (fig. 11).[97] He was buried next to Lil in the seaside town of Margate. His various bequests benefitted family and close friends, as well as the institutions and causes which he had supported. The course of his life had run from the Victorian era, though two World Wars and into the modern age of consumerism, liberal democracy and social welfare. Courtauld navigated these profound ruptures and changes by holding fast to a set of immutable principles, above all a belief in the importance – to the individual and society – of what he identified as humankind’s ‘deepest aspirations’.[98]

Fig.11. Notice of Samuel Courtauld’s death, Illustrated London News, 13 December 1947. Image: © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans


[1] Courtauld, A Short History, n.p.

[2] Courtauld, Tribute to Beauty, p.1.

[3] Courtauld, Tribute to Beauty, p.2. See also Courtauld, Some Opinions of my Mother’s, n.p.

[4] Courtauld, Tribute to Beauty, p.2.

[5] Courtauld, Tribute to Beauty, p.6.

[6] Aberconway Letters, 3 March 1941.

[7] My thanks to Dr Jonathan Smith, Archivist, Rugby School.

[8] Courtauld, Tribute to Beauty, p.25.

[9] Courtauld, Tribute to Beauty, p.27.

[10] Courtauld later discovered amongst her papers ‘stacks of letters of soldiers who passed through her hospital at Stanstead.’ These evidently, he destroyed. Aberconway Letters, 16 August 1938.

[11] From the introductory statement printed in the programmes of the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts.

[12] Courtauld, Tribute to Beauty, p.29.

[13] See Harold Rosenthal, Two Centuries of Opera at Covent Garden, London, 1958. It seems that Samuel Courtauld’s brother and sister-in-law, Stephen and Virginia, were also involved in the syndicate. See letter from Virginia Courtauld to Geoffrey Toye, 3 February 1934 (Archives of the Royal Opera, London).

[14] Draper Papers, 31 May 1926.

[15] Aldous, 2002, p.58.

[16] The parting with the Opera was not entirely happy. Courtauld wrote to Muriel Draper that ‘we were jockeyed out of it in a rather mean way’: Draper Papers, 27 November, 1928.

[17] Saerchinger 1957, p.187.

[18] His biographer records ‘the heart-warming nobility of his hosts, their sincere love of art, the stimulating company and the serious discussion after the concert which lasted until the small hours’:Saerchinger 1957, p.188. Schnabel’s ardent views on the role of the artist and the corrosive materialism of modern life are very likely to have contributed to the importance which these issues came to hold for Courtauld. Courtauld’s profound appreciation of Schnabel as a musician and thinker is further demonstrated in a letter recommending him to Muriel Draper, see Draper Papers, 28 February 1928 and 25 March 1930.

[19] Lil and Malcolm Sargent were dissatisfied with the quality and consistency of the LSO and decided, in 1931, to form their own orchestra. £30,000 was set aside to recruit the very best English orchestral players. See Aldous, 2002, pp. 67-68.

[20] On the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts, see Aldous 2002, pp.59-68.

[21] A full set of programmes for the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts is held at the Royal College of Music. Elizabeth Courtauld was a member of the College’s Governing Council.

[22] The Guardian, 24 October 1929.

[23] Aldous 2002, p.64.

[24] Aldous 2002, p.61.

[25] Aldous 2002, p.65.

[26] Aldous 2002, p.66.

[27] She also travelled widely for this purpose, including, for example, visiting Frederick Delius in Gretz-sur-Loing.

[28] Aberconway Letters, 24 August 1933.

[29] Courtauld bequeathed to Lady Keynes a bronze sculpture of a dancer by Edgar Degas.

[30] A small number of letters from Samuel Courtauld to Lydia Lopokova survive with her papers at King’s College Library, Cambridge. See also references in Lydia’s correspondence with Keynes: Hill and Keynes eds. 1989.

[31] The Guardian, 28 December 1931. The most extensive obituary is that published in The Times, 28 December 1931. Its author is emphatic that ‘she wanted to discover the genuine tastes of ordinary people and lend her own abilities and fortune to their advancement.’ Lil’s bequests included £500 per year for life to support the work of the composer William Walton. For this, see Stephen Lloyd, William Walton: Muse of Fire, Woodbridge, 2001, p.129.

[32] Aberconway Letters, 27 February 1932.

[33] Aldous 2002, p.61.

[34] Draper Papers, 25 February 1932.

[35] Letter from Samuel Courtauld to Cynthia Jebb, 23 December 1933, Gladwyn Papers, folder 1/2/4. Cynthis Jebb was married to Gladwyn Jevv, who would become a prominent British civil servant and diplomat.

[36] Aberconway Letters, 8 May 1934.

[37] Courtauld, Tribute to Beauty.

[38] The wife of Henry McLaren, 2nd Baron Aberconway, Christabel, Lady Aberconway was a celebrated beauty and cultural hostess. She was a close friend of many writers, artists and musicians, including W.Somerset Maugham, H.G. Wells, Osbert Sitwell and William Walton (who dedicated his Viola Concerto to her).

[39] Courtauld, Human Relationships, n.p.

[40] Draper Papers, 31 August 1932.

[41] Courtauld also acquired the lease to the neighbouring property, 11 North Audley Street.

[42] Introduction to the anthology of poetry compiled for Lady Aberconway, August 1939, n.p.

[43] Christabel Aberconway, A Wiser Woman? A Book of Memories, London, 1966, p.82.

[44] Notes in the anthology of poetry compiled for Lady Aberconway, August 1939, private collection.

[45] Notes in the anthology of poetry compiled for Lady Aberconway, August 1939, private collection.

[46] Aberconway Letters, 8 August 1939. He concedes that Eliot’s The Waste Land ‘impresses me with a certain tragic force & even beauty.’ When he met Eliot in 1943, he thought him ‘most charming’. Aberconway Letters, 26 March, 1934.

[47] Notes to the anthology of poetry compiled for Lady Aberconway, August 1939, private collection.

[48] The anonymous ‘three Cs’ to whom the volume is dedicated are Christabel McLaren, Cynthia Jebb and Charles Morgan.

[49] Aberconway Letters, 23 April 1937.

[50] Aberconway Letters, 13 August 1939.

[51] Aberconway Letters, 12 August 1939.

[52] An extension had been built for them in 1934.

[53] ‘I spent most of Christmas day grovelling on the floor, getting the model railway-engine to work…The boys… were quite thrilled when we told them that we had had it running round & round billiard on its tracks emitting flames & steam, pulling a train of assorted vehicles.’ Aberconway Letters, 27 December 1936.

[54] Aberconway Letters, 23 April 1937. The original letter from Baldwin is with the Butler Papers, folder D32. Courtauld evidently wrote a long letter to Baldwin explaining his decision. This is untraced.

[55] Aberconway Letters, 6 August 1936.

[56] Aberconway Letters, 1 September 1939.

[57] Aberconway Letters, 3 September 1939.

[58] This enabled the United States to provide military aid to Britain and its allies. Courtauld was scarred by what he regarded as plain ‘robbery’ and one of his last major efforts as Chairman would be to secure appropriate compensation for Courtaulds Ltd. See Aberconway Letters for the period.

[59] Letters from Samuel Courtauld to William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, 20 April 1942, Butler papers, folder D32.

[60] Draper Papers, 14 November 1940.

[61] Aberconway Letters, 3 March 1941.

[62] For the broader context of this essay, it is worth noting that Morgan was a passionate Francophile.

[63] Courtauld bequeathed to Morgan one of his two drawings by Ingres. Morgan appears to have written frequently to Courtauld and his understanding of his friend is evident from his insightful preface in Ideals and Industry. See also Morgan’s tribute to Courtauld in The Times, 10 December 1947.

[64] Letter to Charles Morgan pasted into Morgan’s personal copy of Pictures into Verse (The Courtauld Gallery archives).

[65] Letter from Samuel Courtauld to Christopher Arnold-Forster, 25 November 1941, Butler Papers, folder D32.

[66] Courtauld gives a longer account of Benda, with references to some individual passages and ideas, in Draper Papers, 14 November 1929. See also Aberconway, 18 June 1929.

[67] Courtauld 1949, p.45.

[68] This correspondence is with the Butler Papers, folder D32.

[69] Courtauld 1949, p.23.

[70] Courtauld 1949, p.42.

[71] Letter from Samuel Courtauld to William Temple, 20 April 1942, Butler Papers, folder D32.

[72] Courtauld enclosed a copy of this article with his letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, mentioned above.

[73] A selection of these lectures were printed posthumously, in 1949, along with the Economic Journal article, as Ideals and Industry. War-time papers by the late Samuel Courtauld.

[74] Aberconway Letters, 22 April 1943.

[75] Samuel Courtauld, typescript entitled ‘Faith and Policy’, Butler Papers, folder D32.

[76] Courtauld 1949, p.6.

[77] Courtauld 1949, p.2.

[78] Courtauld 1949, p.32.

[79] Courtauld 1949, p.87.

[80] Courtauld 1949, p.25.

[81] Courtauld 1949, p.88.

[82] The Times, 13 November 1929. It seems that this was in addition to £5,000 contributed in 1927. In 1922 he had given an eleven-acre sportsground for use by the Courtauld Ltds employees at the Halstead factory. In 1934 he gave £4,500 towards the acquisition, as public open space, of 300 acres of the Hainault Forest, an ancient woodlands on the outskirts of London.

[83] Courtauld 1949, p.9.

[84] Courtauld 1949, p.26.

[85] He recalled how it had still been possible for his father to know by name many of the employees of the factories which he managed, and be involved in their social activities (Courtauld 1949, p.111). Concerning board representation, the example of Courtaulds Ltd makes it clear that in referring to workers Courtauld often meant employees more broadly.

[86] Courtauld 1949, p.9.

[87] Courtauld 1949, p.74.

[88] Courtauld 1949, p.80.

[89] Away from industry, he was sceptical about finance and banking, decried speculation in shares, was deeply ambivalent about advertising, and advocated the nationalisation of the railways as essential national infrastructure.

[90] Aberconway Letters, 1 December 1942.

[91] Courtauld 1949, p.24. Courtauld associated many of these trends with the emergence of the USA as a world power.

[92] Courtauld 1949, p.86.

[93] Courtauld 1949, p.90.

[94] Courtauld 1949, p.3.

[95] Miles Jebb ed, The Diaries of Cynthia Gladwyn, London, 1995, p.35.

[96] Letter from Charles Morgan to Samuel Courtauld, 16 June 1947, Butler Papers, folder D32.

[97] Of the numerous obituaries and tributes one notes especially those in The Times on 3 and 17 December 1947, and The Guardian on 3 December 1947 (with a contribution by R.A. Butler)

[98] Courtauld 1949, p.86.

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